Killer bacteria outbreak scares off German consumers

7th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

A killer bacteria outbreak has consumers running scared in this north German city where restaurants are empty and vegetables, blamed for the contamination, are withering away on market stalls.

"Killers", "poisoners", "criminals" -- employees of the Kartoffelkeller restaurant have been subjected to a deluge of anonymous telephone calls and hate e-mails after more than a dozen of their customers fell ill, and one died of the infection last month.

"For us it's been nothing short of a catastrophe," said Frank Michel, the chief chef as he cooked the potatoes for which the restaurant is popular.

"This lunchtime we had 10 customers. Normally for lunch we have between 50 and 60, with 120 to 130 for dinner," he added.

Employees insisted they were not to blame.

"As a restaurant we're at the end of the food chain. Our suppliers provide us with goods they get from producers on the Hamburg market," Michel said.

"And we are regularly checked by health authorities," he added.

This didn't stop customers, including a large party of women tax inspectors, in town for a seminar, from succumbing last month to the E. coli contamination which German officials believe may have been spread by sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce.

They have called on consumers to stay away from all of these raw vegetables.

Health inspectors have sought to track the origin of the outbreak by working their way back along the food chain.

This is how they came to suspect that sprouts from a farm in Lower Saxony might be to blame. But initial tests at the site proved to be negative, officials said Monday.

This followed an earlier scare over organic cucumbers from Spain.

The Kartoffelkeller restaurant, like most others in this tourist city, no longer serves fresh salad.

The state of Schleswig-Holstein, home to Luebeck, has seen one of the highest numbers of people infected -- 676 at the last count, along with six dead.

Overall 23 people have died in Germany and one in Sweden, while more than 2,300 have fallen ill from the disease which provokes bloody diarrhoea and can lead to kidney failure.

On the Luebeck market, vegetable sellers find it hard to sell their greens.

"We have to throw away everything," said Martina Strunck, looking to a box of lettuce.

"At the moment I sell one box of lettuce a week. Before the outbreak I sold about 20," added Strunck, who runs a small local farm.

"People are worried. They speak of nothing else," said Eike-Loki Hardt, another vegetable seller.

"Our customers ask us what they can still eat. A lot say that just washing the vegetables isn't good enough," he added.

Since the outbreak made the headlines, he hasn't sold a single head of lettuce.

"And we only sell 10 percent of what we usually handle by way of cucumbers. For tomatoes, it's about half," he added.

On the stall, his cucumbers, at 0.80 euro a piece ($1), carry a notice specifying where they were grown. But this doesn't reassure people.

"Even if I dropped my prices, it wouldn't help. People just don't want to buy them," he said.

Customer concern is spreading far and wide.

Strawberries, which have now come into season, are also shunned by many even though they are not included on any official watch.

And Ulrich Bahr, who sells cheese, said his customers had stopped buying all raw milk products.

"One day it's cucumbers from Spain which are blamed, then sprouts from northwest Germany. Nobody knows where the bacteria has come from, that is what is the worse thing," said one shopper, Gerda Krasman.

© 2011 AFP

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